White fired by divine inspiration

SUPERBOWL XXXI: The `Minister of Defense' serves the Packers for God and his people. Matt Tench reports
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The Independent Online
It has been one of the sharper ironies of Super Bowl week here in New Orleans that the man with the direct line to God should reach the pinnacle of his professional career in a city still trading on its sinful past. This city, where the Green Bay Packers take on the New England Patriots tomorrow, may no longer live up to the legend of its lascivious heyday, but it is still the nearest America gets to bohemia, which makes it a safe bet that Reggie White has not been sampling the benefits of Bourbon Street in the past few days.

He is more likely to have been taking prayer meetings in his hotel room, a task for which he is especially well qualified. For as well as being a key performer on the Packers defense, White is an ordained minister, and if he shares leadership on the field with a number of the Packers' outstanding players, there is no doubt to whom the team turns for spiritual leadership.

At 6ft 5in and 21 stones, White has been a commanding presence this week, and not just in the physical sense. He is a man at ease with his faith, yet aware that his constant espousal of it causes a certain unease among certain members of the media. "A lot of you guys have asked a question concerning football and religion," he told the assembled throng on Media Day. "The thing is, there's people's lives at stake. I don't see the problem most of you guys have with us, when we get in the end zone and pray, or get together and pray or we talk about Jesus publicly. It's saving people's lives.

"People write me letters whose lives have changed, who have read my books, who are better fathers, who are better husbands, who are better men and women for it. That's what it's all about."

White wears his spirituality on his sleeve, even if the degree to which he believes his life is guided by God invites ridicule from non-believers. When four years ago he left the Philadelphia Eagles, the team at which he established his reputation as the greatest defensive lineman of his generation, he said there were two criteria to his choice of new employers: a team in contention and in a place where he could continue his work with the inner-city under-privileged.

After a month of solicitations by some of the NFL's biggest teams, White appeared to be edging towards the San Francisco 49ers before a late offer from the Packers won the day. As Green Bay were then regarded as one of the league's basket cases, and the town was notably short of inner-city poor, the deal, which was the highest on offer, attracted some scepticism, particularly from Norman Braman, Philadelphia's owner.

He said White's decision "wasn't going to be made by a ghetto or by God. It was going to be made for the reasons most human beings make decisions today: money."

Braman, whose tight-fisted approach had been instrumental in the disintegration in a potentially great Philadelphia team, may have been an expert in such decisions himself, but White insisted his choice was determined by God. He later explained that he thought the Lord had told him to go to San Francisco but that during a soul-searching night of prayer God had been more specific, asking White where Green Bay's head coach and offensive and defensive co-ordinators came from. When White realised their careers had been shaped by the 49ers, God replied, "that's the San Francisco I'm talking about".

If White's experience took the concept of divine knowledge into a new dimension, he has been in no mood to make light of his choice this week, regarding his presence in the Super Bowl as proof of a guiding hand, and an opportunity to thank the Almighty for his career. "A lot of you guys were sarcastic about my decision when I said God spoke to me," he declared with a chuckle. "But what can you say? Look at God now."

If the intensely personal nature of White's faith still attracts scorn, he remains one of the most revered figures in his sport, mainly because he so clearly practises what he preaches. White was raised in the Deep South, an area still stricken by its racist past, and in the past few years has returned to help set up a church in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of the poorest black communities.

White would preach there himself, but took his role much further. He helped set up projects within the community, such as a refuge for unmarried mothers and a skill centre for the unemployed, with the funding largely provided by a $1m (pounds 615,000) donation he made to a bank established by the Inner-City Church.

A year ago the church White helped build was burned to the ground. There have been more than 70 such attacks in the South since 1995, the one in Knoxville caused by a mixture of kerosene, gunpowder and at least 18 Molotov cocktails. The arsonists left grafitti which read "Die Nigger" and "die Nigger Lovers", and 12 months later the FBI have made little progress in their investigation into the attack, though a number of churchmen have fallen under suspicion.

White's anger at the government's inertia has been evident this week and it has propelled him further into the potentially dangerous arena of racial and social politics. "Don't forget poverty is a big money maker," he said, suggesting that the fire may have had an economic as well as racial overtones because his projects were helping to galvanise the area's poor.

White's unique position as genuine sporting hero and respected churchman have led some to predict a political career when he finishes with football (at 35 he has just signed a new contract with the Packers that will continue his career for at least a couple of years).

There is no doubting the respect the man known as the "Minister of Defense" commands, both within his profession and from a wider community. "I don't know of anyone with as much skill and ability as Reggie who has as his primary thought and goal the betterment of other people," said Fritz Shurmur, the Packers' defensive co-ordinator.

White himself certainly left the way open when he spoke of his future plans. "I don't know what my contribution will be after football. I see my role as a leader. Not only as a football player, but as a person in the community. A lot of people have asked, `Do you perceive yourself as a force particularly in the black community?' And I answer, `I want to be a leader, not only for the black community, but to all communities.'"

White has clearly done that in Green Bay, a conservative white area in the Midwest state of Wisconsin, whose football team is made up almost entirely from its black citizens. It is almost impossible to imagine White becoming more popular there than he already is, but victory over the Patriots in tomorrow might just achieve that.

If the Pack do win, there is little doubt that many will credit White's arrival as the key factor in the triumph. There is even less doubt as to whom Reggie White will be giving the credit.